Insane in the Membrane

by Nathan Hall

Odds are a crazy person is part of your life. I’m not talking somewhat moody or mildly bipolar, but barking-at-the-fire-hydrant-and-drooling-while-eating-raw-macaroni insane. Perhaps this person asks you every morning at the bus stop to autograph his jacket and then demands you pay him for damaging his clothing. Maybe they order a small coffee from you and then nurse it for the length of your shift while cursing at no one in particular. It is possible you have one hidden in your genealogy chart. Now imagine that one such anomaly has an entire extended family afflicted with mental illness. Finally, imagine their story as a musical, and you have the essence of Lisa D’Amour’s new play “16 Spells to Charm the Beast.”

Kirby Bennett stars as Lillian Davis, a bored and despondent, middle-aged homemaker from Manhattan who also happens to be one fry short of a Happy Meal. Lillian’s overactive imagination regularly deludes her: An old ball of yarn becomes her long lost tabby cat, and dusting a hunk of firewood sounds to her like strumming a cello. Likewise, Lillian is utterly convinced that a beast who vaguely resembles an 1830s beaver trapper is stalking her. She wastes away her days observing the real world from her window with binoculars she fashioned out of old Gatorade bottles and masking tape.

The aging but still surprisingly sensual Lillian appears perpetually clad in a respectable cocktail dress, writhing around on her designer sofa like a drug-addled sex kitten. Lillian’s relentless, nonsensical complaining mentally and physically exhausts everyone around her and results in her alienation. Lillian’s haunted eyes and nervous hand tics display the classic symptoms of long-repressed child abuse, yet nothing in her pampered past gives the slightest indication as to how that materialized.

Perhaps Lillian’s stuffy downtown New York high-rise apartment is to blame for her lightheadedness, as the rest of her family and neighbors are also afflicted with cabin fever. Her clingy husband Ned, played by Tim McGivern, has a penchant for donning bargain bin Halloween masks when company arrives. Her hot-tempered daughter Norma, played by Aimee Trumbore, is convinced that household objects stuffed into a shopping bag are her 21 “children.” Norma names and confides in baby toys, Christmas ornaments and gardening supplies which she often leaves for a beaming Grandma Lillian to baby-sit. Since Norma’s brief appearances are shown out of chronological order, it is never firmly established if any of her pregnancies and short-lived marriages are legitimate or simply another byproduct of her delusional thinking.

Lillian’s sole pleasure in life is a weekly gossip session with Millicent Hiccup, played by Laura Respess, an easily excited neighbor from downstairs who drinks entirely too much tea. Hiccup might be the only other person on the planet who believes Lillian’s monster stories. Nevertheless, D’Amour never firmly establishes if the beast represents a metaphor for some horrific childhood trauma suffered by Lillian or just a nameless street bum that likes to sing drunken gibberish.

The musical numbers are so randomly placed and poorly executed that I am reminded of the 1996 film “Everyone Says I Love You” and its train-wreck approach to the genre. Just as with the Woody Allen picture, “16 Spells” inserts silly songs that tend to distract from rather than enhance the storyline. The players here are convincingly crackers, but D’Amour’s plot-challenged script fails to adequately develop them. Too many questions are left unanswered for the audience to develop an attachment to the characters. The beast is never properly identified, and the origin of the family’s madness is never fully revealed. More importantly, without a single sane person to serve as a benchmark for reality, there is no point of reference in which to gauge whether any of them will ever recover.

Fools and fanatics can unwittingly say some incredibly humorous and profound things. Yet, watching this production mostly left me with the guilty feeling of sneaking into a therapy session which I never should have observed.

“16 Spells to Charm the Beast” plays through Nov. 24 at The Playwright’s Center, (612) 879-9075.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]